There has been no shortage of extraordinary stories from the book world in 2022. But no story this year has been more extraordinary than the ongoing, unprecedented surge in book bans and censorship efforts being pushed by right-wing groups in communities across the nation.
“What we’re seeing is a coordinated political effort to stigmatize books dealing with the lives and experiences of diverse communities, particularly the LGBTQ community and persons of color,” explains Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “We’re seeing rhetoric that seeks to turn librarians and educators into villains. We’re seeing librarians whose jobs and livelihoods are being threatened because of their defense of intellectual freedom in libraries. In some states we’re seeing legislation threatening to put librarians and teachers in jail over the lie that certain books are pornographic, when they simply reflect gender identity or sexual orientation themes or characters, or deal with sex education.”
New headlines emerge seemingly every day. Local library and school board meetings have become battlegrounds, and local elections are flooded with money from national conservative groups. Librarians and educators are being intimidated into silence, with many choosing to leave the professions they love. And legislators in a number of states are seeking greater control of which books can be made available in libraries and schools.
This is not a time to despair, however, as veteran free speech defender Chris Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote in a PW Soapbox this fall. This is a time to fight. In recognition of the foundational threat posed by this new wave of book banning, PW has named those standing up to these would-be censors as our People of the Year.
To begin, we recognize the authors being targeted by the banners. Among them is Maia Kobabe, whose critically acclaimed graphic memoir Gender Queer was declared “the most banned book in the country” in a May New York Times profile. In that profile, Kobabe spoke of what it means to be singled out. “When you remove those books from the shelf or you challenge them publicly in a community, what you’re saying to any young person who identified with that narrative is, ‘we don’t want your story here,’ ” Kobabe said.
Nikole Hannah Jones, Pulitzer Prize–winning author and creator of the 1619 Project, has seen her work not only banned but legislated against. “This is actually trying to control the collective memory of this country,” Jones told CNN’s Brian Stelter. “It’s one thing to have right-wing media saying they don’t like the 1619 Project, or they don’t agree with the 1619 Project. But it’s quite something else to have politicians from state legislatures down to school boards actually making prohibitions against teaching a work of American journalism or really any of these other texts.”
We recognize the librarians, educators, administrators, and board members on the front lines of the battle in their communities: people like Becky Calzada and Carolyn Foote, school librarians in Texas who early on helped to organize against this surge with a grassroots campaign called #FReadom Fighters. Conceived in November 2021 as a Twitter campaign, #FReadom Fighters became a beacon of support at a critical moment in Texas and across the country.
“That was just incredibly powerful to see,” Calzada says of the moment she realized #FReadom was trending on Twitter. “It was incredible to see how many people were connecting to it, but also that people were connecting to it because they were hungry for hope. That’s what we did. We gave people hope.”
In July, a school librarian named Amanda Jones spoke up at a public meeting against a bid to pull a number of mostly LGBTQ-themed books from her hometown public library in Livingston Parish, La. The following day, she was accused on social media of grooming children and fighting to make pornography available to kids. A graphic death threat followed shortly thereafter.
Jones fought back by filing a defamation suit against two men who publicly accused her online of wanting to sexualize children. “It’s been a heavy load—I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t,” she says. “People say I’m courageous, but I’m angry. There are people trying to erase entire communities from our shelves and librarians and teachers are being used as political pawns. Who is holding these people accountable?”
At the Patmos Library in Jamestown, Mich., Larry Walton, acting president of the board, was forced to announce that his library will close sometime in 2024, after local conservatives mounted a successful campaign to defund the entire library over the board’s refusal to ban a handful of LGBTQ-themed books. It’s a tragic, almost unfathomable outcome. But Walton says he stands by the board’s decision not to pull the books. And rather than walk away from the library, he and the board are trying to save it from closure.
“It’s hard because this is a volunteer position,” Walton says. “None of us were looking for this fight. It can be very tempting to give in to those who are yelling the loudest. But there is such a thing as intellectual freedom. There is the First Amendment. And we stand behind that.”
A strong supporting cast is also standing firm. At the ALA, Caldwell-Stone says her work has leveled up both in volume and intensity. “It used to be we’d hear about a parent who would see a book their child was reading and raise concerns with a librarian or educator,” Caldwell-Stone says. “Now, we’re hearing about Proud Boys showing up to library board meetings as an act of intimidation.” In addition to hosting Banned Books Week and providing resources and counsel to librarians in the field, the ALA in April organized Unite Against Book Bans, a broad coalition that includes booksellers, publishers, the Authors Guild, and dozens more media and advocacy groups.
“We assist library workers, but they’re the heroes,” Caldwell-Stone insists, pointing also to the tireless work of state library associations. “I’m just proud to be their advocate.”
PEN America is another organization playing a vital role, engaging lawmakers, hosting programs, organizing open letters, gahering a wealth of data and issuing key reports. In May, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel testified eloquently before the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on the issue of censorship and book banning in schools and libraries. “At PEN America we think of our current moment as an ‘ed scare’—a time when manufactured fear is overtaking reason,” Nossel told the committee. “The test for us as a society, and as a democracy, is in how we respond.”
Numerous other groups are also stepping up with a host of vital resources and support, from legal aid to public awareness campaigns, panels, and programs. These include the ACLU, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and the American Booksellers for Free Expression—long stalwarts in the fight for intellectual freedom. We Need Diverse Books last month announced a new #BooksSaveLives initiative. The program will offer up to $10,000 in grants for challenged books to schools and libraries in underserved communities.
Upstart parent groups like the Florida Freedom to Read Project are proving to be powerful and potentially decisive allies in the fight. Started by Jen Cousins and Stephana Ferrell in response to the recent wave of so-called parental rights legislation in Florida, the FFRP is organized around a key principle, succinctly articulated on the group’s website: “Parents have the right to screen what their own children read, but it stops there. No one parent or government entity should be able to prevent all students from accessing information at the library.”
A name that has repeatedly come up in our reporting over the past two years is John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary, the nation’s only political action committee dedicated to libraries. A true library advocate and a shrewd political observer, Chrastka, librarians say, has been a vital ally on the ground in their communities. For his part, he is quick to praise the work of Tasslyn Magnusson, an independent researcher gathering and studying key data behind this wave of book bans. Chrastka says Magnusson’s work, which EveryLibrary supports through its EveryLibrary Institute, has been crucial.
Kelly Jensen, a former librarian turned writer for Book Riot, has from the outset stood apart in covering this wave of book banning. In addition to her own reporting, she has cataloged and brought to a national audience stories from around the country in a weekly roundup for Book Riot. And from the outset Jensen has pierced the fallacy that this wave of bans is some kind of grassroots movement about age-appropriate materials or protecting innocence, calling it out for what it is: a nationally organized political operation.
Though space limits us from shouting out all those standing bravely against this new wave of book banners, we salute you all. And we stress that these attacks are only intensifying, and that this dangerous moment requires us all to do more.
In a November panel discussion sponsored by ACLU People Power, Mark Oshiro, author of numerous young adult books including Anger Is a Gift, movingly articulated what’s at stake.
“I didn’t know what books were banned in my middle school library or my high school library—I learned about that later,” Oshiro said. “But what I did see was that I wasn’t represented on the bookshelves. There really is no better way to destroy a person’s identity than to not let them discover anything about it.”
Notables of the Year
In addition to naming our people of the year, PW selected six industry members who had notable achievements in 2022.